Since 2006, Sam Roberts’ Ghostsigns initiative has been documenting ghost signs, and championing their heritage value. (‘Ghost’ signs are the fading remains of hand-painted advertising, typically found on walls.)
In addition to writing extensively on the topic, Sam’s work on ghost signs has included the curation of a national archive, illuminating them at night, leading walking tours, and a variety of other local, national, and international initiatives.
Sam’s expertise is regularly sought out by press, academics, students, and members of the public. He consistently embraces collaboration, and the vast majority of his work in this area has been carried out in a voluntary capacity.
The following are some frequently asked questions with links to useful resources to explore the themes in more depth, many from the blog. If you want to get deeper into the topic after this then the best place to start would be the book, Ghost Signs: A London Story.
What is a ghost sign?
My working definition is ‘fading painted sign’ which is justified in this extended essay. Broadly the main things to consider are the form and content of the sign, i.e. how it was produced and what its purpose was/is. Depending on your views on each of these dimensions you may arrive at a different definition to mine. (NB. I didn’t coin the term.)
Where can ghost signs be found?
When were ghost signs painted?
It depends what you count as a ghost sign, but people have been making marks on walls since pre-historic times. More recently, there is evidence of commercial signage in the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and then an 1820s one in Bath, England.
Should ghost signs be protected and/or restored?
See posts on protection and posts on restoration from the blog. I would also recommend reading this extended piece I wrote for the Monotype Recorder on the wider question of what to do about ghost signs and some more in-depth thoughts on this difficult question.
What's your favourite ghost sign?
This is always a difficult question, and there are just too many to choose from. However, I tend to come back to the (now covered) sign for Black Cat cigarettes in London which has a little bit of everything. It’s a huge piece on the side of the former Carreras cigarette factory, features two illustrations, includes the price for ten fags, and was signed by the company that painted it, Harris the Sign King.
What books about ghost signs do you recommend?